To stage total disaster, call on an expert

`Titanic' fares well in Columbia, thanks to a veteran designer

Theater scene

August 31, 2007|By MARY JOHNSON | MARY JOHNSON,[Special to The Sun]

The Titanic is once again afloat, thanks to Richard Montgomery of Annapolis, who has expanded his theater set-designing career to ship design with his latest project, creating the set for Titanic: The Musical, which opened last week at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia.

"It doesn't get any better than this," Montgomery said the day after its premiere. "Everything was working."

Theater owner and Titanic director Toby Orenstein agreed, saying it's one of the most difficult shows the company has ever done, and the first night went smoothly.

"Richard has made it possible to bring Titanic into this theater," she said.

This show marks at least the 12th musical for Montgomery, whose credits include Oliver!, Showboat, A Little Night Music and Hair. Over a career that started at the Old Vic Theatre making props for famed director Tyrone Guthrie, he has worked with such theater luminaries as Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott and director Jackson Phippin, and he has done film and video series design for BBC and PBS.

For the past four years, he has designed sets and costumes for the Naval Academy's Masqueraders, such as Chaucer in Rome, Macbeth and last season's A Streetcar Named Desire, working with faculty member and director Christy Stanlake.

Nominated for Helen Hayes Awards for outstanding set design in 2005's The Dazzle and last year's The Violet Hour, both at the Rep Stage in Washington, Montgomery most recently created sets for the Washington Shakespeare Company's Playbill Caf? production of Noel Coward's Private Lives, which runs through Sept. 23.

Familiar with the Washington theater scene, Montgomery was well aware that Orenstein had received 38 Helen Hayes Award nominations for shows presented at her Columbia theater. She won in 2003 for her direction of Jekyll and Hyde, and in 2004 her Ragtime won best choreography (Illona Kessell) and best actor (Tom McKenzee).

Titanic seems right for Orenstein to engage Montgomery, an English theatrical designer who has amassed 300 credits from work done worldwide. He recounted their first meeting, when "Toby showed how to use the space, talking me through the motion of the play, acting out moments. This director is a storyteller who has an understanding of multimedia and what music and action bring to the plot."

Later experiences produced a total immersion in the events of the story, he said, for "total theater - a term that is bandied about and which Toby probably achieves in her sleep."

Titanic, which opened on Broadway in April 1997 and won four Tony awards, has its area premiere with this production. After seeing the show twice in New York, co-director, costume designer and choreographer Lawrence B. Munsey persuaded Orenstein to do the show, convinced that "Toby could adapt this musical to get to its heart and soul and make us care about these people."

"Theater has to teach us about people, and this story has many different facets as a love story, a story about souls and about the lives that were lost and the lives that were saved. Not to be seen as a tragedy, Titanic changed America and tells an uplifting story that is relative today in its emphasis on the human spirit's ability to continue on," said Orenstein.

Montgomery called Titanic a musical hybrid - an epic that tells the stories of people in different circumstances - and said it captured the "waning of the Empire - an Edwardian, pre-World War I era" in which he describes Maury Yeston's music as reflecting Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

He was attracted to this story in part because his father served as a wireless operator on a ship, and his grandfather for his 21st birthday had been given a costly first-class ticket on the Titanic, which he sold to buy passage on a cargo boat to Montreal, in hopes of becoming a miner.

The set design required him to create 14 locations, including one set with moving parts to simulate a shipwreck on stage. Some scenes occur simultaneously side by side, and the atmospheric music plays constantly, with no pauses for blackouts or scene changes.

Because Toby's is a theater-in-the-round, it presented additional complications, including limited entrances and exits. Montgomery solved some problems architecturally by building a multilevel superstructure suggesting the ship's decks, where actors could communicate on different ship levels. He also created a gangplank to be used at the beginning of the show to establish the ship at dockside where passengers board the ship.

He described this as his most minimalist set, dictated by lack of storage space and limited stage space.

Montgomery was impressed by production manager Vicki Sussman, whom he described "as good a dramaturge as I've ever worked with." He said she is immersed in Titanic history and had acquired museum-quality artifacts for this production.

Of co-director Munsey, he said he admired "Larry's costume design skills, his sense of the theater and his ability to create body languages through his choreographic skills."

The talent behind the scenes and on stage would portend that this Titanic will create local theatrical history while reliving on-stage a fascinating historical chapter .

Performances of "Titanic: The Musical" run through Nov. 11, with evening shows Tuesdays through Sundays and matinees on Wednesdays and Sundays. Ticket prices range from $30.50 to $49. For more information, visit www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.

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